On Blind Obedience to Hierarchs

Sts. Makarios of Corinth 1731-1805 and Nikodemos the Hagiorite 1749-1809

Objection: …[F]irst, that the Canons and the commandments are under the authority of the Hierarchs; secondly, that we should not examine what our Hierarchs, teachers, and spiritual fathers tell us, but just obey them in all things with simplicity; and thirdly, they cite the Apostolic dictum: “Obey them that rule over you, and submit yourselves. (Heb. 13:17)

To the three parts of this objection we have nothing of our own to say, lest we cause confusion and perturbation to some; however, we reckon it harmful to people’s souls to remain completely silent about them. Let us, therefore, see what the Saints say, so that no one might have any grounds for complaining.

…The Divine Chrysostom demonstrates from the Consecration of Hierarchs that Hierarchs are subject to the Divine Canons and commandments:

“Because the High Priest was the head of the people, it was necessary for him, being the head of all, to have on his head a symbol of his authority (for absolute power is intolerable; but since he has the symbol of sovereignty on his head, he shows that he is subject to the law.) The Law ordains that his head not be bare, but covered, so that the head of the people might learn that he has another, greater Head. For this reason, in the Church, at the Ordinations of Priests [St. Nikodemos: ‘Priests’ is written here instead of ‘Hierarchs’, since the author is referring to Priesthood in general; in fact, only Hierarchs carry the Divinely transmitted Scriptures on their head, according to Dionysius the Aeropagite], the Gospel of Christ is placed on the head of the Ordinand, so that he might learn that he is receiving the true tiara of the Gospel and so that he might also learn that, although he is the head of all, he is nonetheless subject to the laws of the Gospel, that he governs all, but is himself governed by the laws, and that, while he enacts all the laws, his powers are defined by the laws. For this reason, one of the ancients (Ignatios was his name), who was adorned by Priesthood and martyrdom, write, in a letter to a certain Hierarch: ‘Let nothing be done without your will; and as for yourself, do nothing without the will of God.’ (Epistle to Polycarp) Therefore, the fact that the Hierarchs has the Gospel placed on his head signifies that he is under authority.” (Homily ‘That the Legislator of the Old and New Testaments is One and the Same’)

To the second point that they mention, that that we should not examine our Hierarchs, teachers, and spiritual fathers, but obey them in all matters, St. Basil the Great replies that “the preacher of the Word must both do and say everything with great circumspection and scrutiny, with a view to pleasing God, since he ought to be scrutinized and approved even by those entrusted to him.” (Morals, Rule 70.37)

And again: “Such hearers as have been instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by their teachers; and they should accept what is in conformity with the Scriptures and reject what is alien to them, and should vehemently shun those who persist in such teachings.” (Morals, Rule 72)

And again: Those who do not have much knowledge of Scripture should recognize the distinguishing characteristics of the Saints by the fruits of the Spirit, receiving those who possess such characteristics and shunning those who do not.” (Morals, 70.2)

…To the third part of the objection the Divine Chrysostom responds: “Anarchy is altogether an evil, the occasion of many calamities, and the source of disorder and confusion […]. However, the disobedience of those who are ruled is no less an evil […]. But perhaps someone will say, there is also a third evil, when the ruler is bad. I myself, too, know it, and it is no small evil, but a far worse evil than anarchy. For it is better to be led by no one than to be led by one who is evil. For the former indeed are oftentimes saved, and oftentimes are in peril, but the latter will be altogether in peril, being led into the pit of perdition. How then does Paul say, ‘Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves (Heb. 13:17)?’ Having said above, ‘whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation’ (Heb. 13:7), he then said, ‘Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves’. ‘What then,’ you say, ‘when he is wicked, should we not obey?’ Wicked? In what sense? If in regard to faith, flee and avoid him, not only if he is a man, but even if he is an angel come down from heaven; but if in regard to life, be not over-curious. And I do not cite this instance from my own experience, but from Divine Scripture. For hear Christ saying, ‘The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ Seat.’ (Mat. 23:2) Having previously said many fearful things about them, He then says, ‘They sit in Moses’ Seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, […] do; but do not ye after their works.’ (Mat. 23:2-3) What he means is that they have the office, but are of unclean life; but pay attention not to their life, but to their words. For no one would be harmed on account of their characters. How is this? Both because their characters are manifest to all, and also because even if one of them were ten thousand times as wicked he would never teach what is wicked. But with regard to faith, the evil is not manifest to all, and the wicked will ruler will not forbear from teaching false doctrines. For the saying, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Mat. 7:1) pertains to life, not to faith […]. Paul, however, previously commended them [he testified, that is, that the Shepherds were in every way upright], and then he says: ‘Obey them that have the rule over you'”. (Homily XXXIV On Hebrews)

This is what the Saints say. But as for us, brethren, since the Lord has called us to be at peace, we should submit to our Hierarchs, spiritual fathers, and teachers on account of the dignity that they have before God. But if any one of them does something irrational or impedes us from doing some God-pleasing deed, let us not cease from beseeching and imploring until we persuade him that the will of God should be done, in order that peace might reign between us; that concord and harmony might prevail; that love might be shown towards Shepherds and sheep, towards Hierarchs and Christians, towards Priests and lay people, towards superiors and subordinates; and that scandals, disturbances, schisms, and divisions might remain far from us. For such things are destructive of our souls, our homes, our Churches, and of every community and nation. In brief, let peace reign, in order that might all be one body and one spirit, all with one hope even as we were called, (cf. Eph. 4:4) and that the God of peace might be with us. (Concerning Frequent Communion, Objection 12. Manna from Athos: The Issue of Frquent Communion on the Holy Mountain in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries by Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos, p. 167-171)